For years, I was a camp counselor at the YMCA every summer, and I remember one little boy who came every year. He had a fairly severe form of autism, but he interacted pretty well with the other kids and liked to play sports. However, he only liked some aspects of sports and he only liked to do some motions over and over again, like hitting or kicking the ball, but not running or catching. It’s common for children with autism to enjoy only specific activities or pastimes and become really focused while playing. However, the types of play children choose when they’re young can actually help physicians diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder much earlier than normal.

Kathy Ralabate Doody, assistant professor of exceptional education at SUNY Buffalo State, led a study on what types of play can help diagnose ASD is children and her findings were published in the North American Journal of Medicine and Science.

"Children with ASD chose to engage in play that provided strong sensory feedback, cause-and-effect results, and repetitive motions," said Doody. She and Jana Mertz, program coordinator at the Autism Spectrum Disorder Center at the Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, conducted most of their research at monthly children’s museum events designed to allow children to engage in different types of play. 

It was found that children with ASD preferred a few specific types of exhibits at the museum including a staircase exhibit where children climbed a staircase and dropped a ball, a windmill exhibit, and a rice table exhibit. All of these types of play involved vestibular and proprioceptive senses. Vestibular senses involve balance and space awareness, and proprioception has to do with how our joints respond to movement and pressure. 

"Children with ADS sometimes tend to crave motion, and if they can't be moving, they like to look at moving objects," said Doody. Knowing what types of play children with ASD enjoy can help parents and physicians use play as a positive reinforcement during treatment and in an educational setting. It can also help with early diagnoses of ASD.

The exhibits tended to avoid things like imaginary play because that type of play involves a phenomenon called Theory of Mind, or the ability to pretend that you are something else or in another place, which typically developing children often do.

Doody also hopes that through her research more facilities with these types of exhibits and activities will be created for children with ASD because it helps develop inclusion and social skills.

Source: SUNY Buffalo State. "Preferred play for children with autism." ScienceDaily, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 24 Aug. 2013.